Natalye Childress on the many slow charms of the Polish capital…
There are plenty of reasons for Berliners to visit the Polish capital, Warsaw, the least of which is its status as twin town of Berlin. With regular trains that connect between the two cities daily (via the Berlin-Warszawa Express), traveling is easy and comfortable. But once you’re there, how do you keep busy without getting overwhelmed? To help you navigate through the city and enjoy a rich experience, here is a list of nine things to do in the ninth-largest populous in the European Union.
Eat at a Milk Bar
Contrary to what the name might suggest, a milk bar is not a drinking establishment. Rather, it’s the literal translation of the Polish term bar mleczny. The first milk bar was created in Warsaw in 1896, and much like the German concept of a Mensa, was a place where residents could go for cheap, hearty fare. The ‘milk’ in the name is intentional, however, as initially many of the items on offer were made with dairy products. Today, milk bars still exist, perhaps as a nostalgic nod to the past, and in fact, many are making a comeback. They are mostly popular among the working class, along with students and the elderly. But for visitors, they represent an authentic and inexpensive way to fill up on traditional, homemade Polish cuisine. Consider visiting Bar Bambino, Mleczarnia Jerozolimska, or Wiking, though there are handfuls of others waiting to be discovered.
Wander Through Praga
Situated on the eastern bank of the Vistula, Praga is today known as the up-and-coming quarter of Warsaw, with its hipster-y, bohemian vibe. But it wasn’t always that way. Long before young folks took over the area with their galleries, coffee shops, and clubs, Praga was seedy and run-down, a place to be avoided. Similar to the Neukölln of five to ten years ago, people would steer clear of the area, issuing warnings about walking the streets alone at night. But now it’s burgeoning with talent, which is changing its reputation.
As an example of what’s on offer, check out the artist settlements in old warehouses, such as Koneser Factory, Soho Factory, and Trzciny Factory, with their shops, offices, cafes, museums, and ateliers. In the evening, take a walk down the central street, Ząbkowska, to soak up the vibe. And while it’s clear that the district is still slightly rough around the edges, don’t let that deter you, as it has some of the best nightlife in the city.
Learn about Jewish history
Unbeknownst to some, Poland was once the home of the largest population of Jewish people in the world, largely due to the tolerant stance Poland has historically had toward Jews. In fact, until World War II, Warsaw had the biggest community of Jewish people in all of Europe. So it makes sense that Warsaw is the place to learn about this history, which dates back to the 10th century. One of the easiest ways to discover more is simply by walking around, as memorials can be found all throughout the city.
For a more formal experience, visit the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, which is more than 200 years old, and home to graves that represent all of the Jewish communities in Warsaw. You might also consider a walking tour; though the former Warsaw Ghetto no longer exists, you can take part in a free walking tour that will explain the history of Warsaw’s Jewish population and point out meaningful sites connected to Jewish life and history. The tour also passes by another must-see, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The museum had a soft open in April 2013, with its permanent exhibition opening in October 2014. One key draw for this museum is a reconstruction of an intricate synagogue roof in Gwoździec, Ukraine, reproduced entirely from pictures. There are also eight separate galleries, each dedicated to a particular aspect of Jewish life in Poland over its 1,000-year history.
Ride public transportation
One way to gain particular insight into the people who populate a big city is by riding the public transit system, and Warsaw is no exception. Because it’s not particularly accessible for cars, many residents use public transportation; as a result, the people-watching is superb. There are two metro lines, but the buses and trams are the most effective way to get around.
On the weekends, take advantage of a special ticket that costs 24 zloty (~5.50 euros), which allows you to ride any and all public transportation between Friday evening and Monday morning. Even better, if you are in a group of between two and five people, a group weekend ticket costs 40 zloty (~9.15 euros). And while you may be tempted to explore Warsaw by bike, you should know that while it’s not impossible, the city is not particularly bike friendly. For safety reasons, be sure to stick to bike routes (which aren’t necessarily convenient for getting around) and pay attention to what’s going on around you.
See Warsaw from above
Want the best view of the city? Then head straight to the Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in all of Poland. Designed as a gift from the Soviet Union to the Polish people, it took an impressive three years to build. Now it towers over the city center at a height of more than 230 meters (755 feet). Today, the palace houses a university, theater, and cinemas, along with countless offices and an exhibition center. For less than 5 euros, you can purchase a ticket to the 30th floor viewing platform, where you can look out over all of Warsaw. Just be sure it’s a clear day before heading up there.
Walk the Royal Route
Though it’s the epitome of touristic attractions in Warsaw, walking the Royal Route (known locally as Szlak Krolewski), is a surefire way to see many of the city’s most famous landmarks while simultaneously admiring the gorgeous architecture that the city centre boasts. Start off in Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site–though nearly all of the city was destroyed in World War II, pre-war paintings and drawings of the Old Town were used as guides to accurately reconstruct the area so that what exists today is true to what the Old Town looked like before it was demolished.
Continue from Castle Square, down past the President’s Palace, and the University of Warsaw, and along the prominent streets of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Swiat, checking out the churches and former palaces, mixed in with cafes and boutiques lining the streets. Cross the main thoroughfare of Aleje Jerozolimskie and arrive at Three Crosses Square. Approximately 1 kilometer later, arrive at Łazienki Park, the largest green space in all of Warsaw. From here, the route becomes much more rural, but the ambitious among you might choose to continue walking south and parallel to the Vistula, eventually arriving at the end point, the Baroque Wilanów Palace.
Get a dose of green
As much as 25 percent of Warsaw consists of green spaces, with eight percent of the city made up of official parks. In addition, many of these parks are the grounds of former palaces. Łazienki Park is the largest and is home to multiple palaces, a Roman theater, two orangeries, an observatory, two temples, and various monuments scattered throughout the grounds. The oldest park in the city, Ogród Saski, was almost entirely destroyed in the war, but a few structures remain today, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a fountain, a handful of statues, a water tower, and a marble sundial. One of the bigger and more wild parks is Park Skaryszewski in Praga, with its overabundance of greenery alongside ponds and a waterfall. For a wide variety of plant life, consider visiting the botanical garden, or for something a bit more unique, head to the rooftop gardens above the University of Warsaw’s library.
There are dozens of museums in Warsaw that cater to a plethora of interests, but the fortunate thing about this city is that you don’t need to be rich to see a lot. One such example is the Museum of Modern Art, which is always free for visitors. Though, as the name suggests, it can be obscure in its offerings, the exhibitions change regularly, so there is always something new and interesting on display. Many, such as the Poster Museum, Warsaw Uprising Museum, Fryderyk Chopin Museum, and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, have one day each week when admission is free, whereas other spots offer free or discounted admission later in the day. But even for those without special prices, the costs are low, with admission often working out to 5 euros or less per person, and discounts available for students and seniors. Of particular note: be sure to check out the Neon Museum, located in the aforementioned arts district of Praga, which houses neon signs from the Cold War era, and provides visitors with an evocative glimpse of bygone days.
Drink The City
Although the only drink that likely comes to mind when one thinks of Warsaw is vodka, there is much more to the city’s liquid palette than it might seem. To start your day off on the right foot, coffee shops such as Relaks and Filtry Cafe serve up strong drinks made with specialty beans. For those wishing to imbibe, try out one of Bierhalle’s three locations. For microbrews produced in the capital city, you can’t go wrong with BrowArmia, which brews its beer on the premises and offers twelve different varieties. Meanwhile, if atmosphere is more your aim, consider checking out Warszawa Powiśle, a former train station-turned restaurant, where you can sip drinks outside in the summer sun.